File it in the rapidly-brimming "biggest-stories-of-2020-you-haven’t-heard-about" folder.
Amidst the madness merger of pandemic and protests – both of which Trump’s minions have blamed on China – there’s been scant attention paid to a brewing conflict between two of the world’s nine nuclear-armed powers (accounting for some 430 warheads between them). One is a rather flighty proxy – India – that Washington has long pursued with the oft-hopeless passion of a smitten suitor. The other, an "enemy" of "freedom," America, and apple pie everywhere: a Chinese dragon to whom new cold war enthusiasts – no doubt with visions of (defense contract) dollar signs dancing in their heads – have ascribed near preternatural ability and ambition.
So, dare I ask if anyone else remembers (nostalgically, even) the "good" old days when dozens of troops from two major powers beating each other to death with nail-studded clubs on a contested international border would be the news story of the moment? Call me sentimental, but given that the duopoly’s anointed presidential contestants in our forthcoming electoral reality show seem intent on outdoing each other with anti-China saber-rattling, what’s unfolded above 14,000 Himalayan feet feels decidedly important. Surely, it deserves at least a touch of historicizing and contextualizing.
Well, last month’s archaic hand-to-hand bloodletting has deep roots – which, like a seeming supermajority of the globe’s more morbid hotspots, is partly a gift (that sure keeps on giving) of late-stage British imperialism. Indeed, the recent border clash is but the latest skirmish in a presumably dormant, yet decades old, "forgotten crisis” of an ongoing Sino-Indian Cold (well, sometimes hot, despite the snowcapped mountain setting) War.
Lest we forget, this conflict’s climactic 1962 eruption brought another deeply-flawed – albeit far savvier – American president, JFK, to the brink of war with China. In fact, just a year later – and fearing a future Sino "invasion" of India – the King of Camelot seriously considered colluding with the hated Soviets in a preemptive nuclear attack on China (before Beijing could consummate it’s own doomsday weapon’s program). Which begs the question of just how The Donald will fare in a current flare-up that’s similar on its surface.
Only 2020 isn’t 1962; and there’s much modern context policymakers ignore at their peril. Nevertheless, let us begin with the basic commonalities: the U.S. favors India; the spatial setting; the influence of, and effect on, a nearby salivating and opportunistic Pakistani voyeur; that India’s army is still no match for China’s; and the implicit profitability for an American (and, uncomfortably, a Russian) military-industrial complex. None of which is all that pretty.
Only, the conflict’s presently profound divergences are worse still. To wit, Xi’s current hybrid China is hardly the same beast as Mao’s communist cusp-of-the-Cultural Revolution schizophrenic basket case. Furthermore, today’s China contains more economic and soft power and influence globally – and especially across Central Asia – than it did 58 years ago. Add to the mix a Pakistani frenemy that’s now much closer to both Washington and Beijing (the second of which has even exchanged nuclear secrets with Islamabad). What’s more, contemporary India’s farcical, but equally dangerous, Trumpian-facsimile prime minister Narendra Modi is a far more chauvinistic and Hindu-nationalistic loose-cannon (and, I might add, a onetime light-genocidaire) than his 1960’s predecessor, the co-father of non-alignment Jawaharlal Nehru. Oh, and there’s also the minor matter that both antagonists now possess between them approximately 330 more nuclear suicide-devices than that required, so scientists estimate, to usher in a potentially species-extinctive decades-long nuclear winter. Details, pesky details.
Those last two facts are potentially vital. Recall that JFK’s eventual restraint in the Himalayas – even after Nehru’s panicky plea for 350 US Air Force jets and 10,000 American crewmen to bomb China – unfolded near-simultaneous to Kennedy’s more famous (if halting) diffusing of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Piloting both countries today are the rather more absurdist and unpredictable, and much less competent, Messieurs Trump and Modi. Given his track record of bluster and bellicosity, the latter seems factory-made to foolishly draw an exceedingly foolish Trump into a wider war that serves neither nation’s interest.
Plus, as mentioned, America’s back-stabbing Pakistani partner reflects – along with its mortal enemy, and ironically also U.S.-courted, Modi-led India – a long line of sabotaging proxies Washington has spun in its historically-twisted alliance-web. Neither New Delhi nor Islamabad (nor, for that matter, Israel, Ukraine, Egypt, and South Korea) have any real loyalty to America or American "values," per say; instead, both are selfishly motivated and prone to U.S.-manipulation. For anecdotal, but illustrative, proof: look no further than enemy-of-the-American-state Osama bin Laden’s more-than-suspicious last known (living) whereabouts.
That all of Washington’s schoolyard siblings too often expend ample blood and treasure from their big brother’s citizen-soldiery and tax coffers would be obscene enough. That the unlikely, but unacceptably possible, logical conclusion could now also be nuclear Armageddon surely counts as existentially-absurd. And speaking of the (Marxian-) absurd, in an authentic first-as-tragedy-then-as-farce reminder that proxies – like children – model parental behavior, enter Madman Modi and his "morale-building" visit to the Indian Army’s "front-lines."
When he "courageously" flew into the late combat zone (well, 60 miles safely behind it), the prime minister of panache sported a khaki green parker jacket, aviator sunglasses and baseball cap of the – how aptly named! – "Fire and Fury” corps stationed on site. For those criminally slow on the Trump-analogy uptake, Mr. Modi was kind of enough to open his mouth before the no doubt mandatorily gathered Indian troopers. In particularly fun fascistic-flavor, he led with this bombastic gut-buster: "In these difficult circumstances, you are the shield of the motherland," adding "The enemies of Mother India have seen your fire and fury." This cartoon-strongman sure is a hoot; still, somehow, the mouthpiece of "New India’s" highly-touted economic modernization and pivot to the West sounds (and acts) a whole lot like the "Old India" of caste, (indigenous) Adivasi-displacement, and ethno-religious pogrom.
By way of contrast to Modi’s vague talk of (no doubt Hindu-) martyrs, XI’s China has proceeded with extraordinary caution and (at least public, plus perceptibly self-serving) humility. Chinese state media has downplayed this deadliest border clash in decades – not even releasing the names of its own unnumbered dead – as President XI, according to one likely astute American analyst, "doesn’t want to be trapped by public opinion calling for escalation." More prescient still were the warning words of XI-the-ostensibly-omnipotent’s foreign ministry spokesman: "India should not make a strategic misjudgment on China." Neither, I’ll add, should the meddler-in-chief of the United States – a country which has a long-demonstrated propensity to "misjudge" both antagonists as Manichean monoliths rather than the mixed-bags and often (internal) messes they often really are.
So, in the interest of uncharacteristic brevity, allow me to save policymakers the trouble and dispel a few tired (and potentially tragic) old myths:
- President XI Jinping’s China hasn’t half the capacity or inclination for world (or heck, regional) dominance as the notably pecuniarily-invested military-industrial masters of the universe would have us believe. (By the way, "Tsar" Putin has something less than half of even that half.)
- India – particularly with Modi at the helm – is no inherent friend or executor of the United States’ supposed interests. India alone cannot play – and is unlikely served by playing – the knot in China’s econ-strategic Belt and Road Initiative. The Soviet-made tanks and personnel carriers that Indian soldiers rushed to the front after the latest clash should be proof enough. That New Delhi’s subsequent emergency weapon’s procurement wish list included Russian air defense missiles and T-90 tanks ought to seal the deal.
- India’s economy (like, but far more so than, Washington’s) is way too awkwardly intertwined with – and vulnerable to – China’s to meaningfully backup, or effectively facilitate, either side’s good-and-evil dichotomous bluster. Beijing’s rhetorical restraint may not be benevolent, but neither is it implicitly belligerent. And it’s undoubtedly more realistic and prudent.
Which is all to say: keep an eye on, and perhaps spare a thought for, this obscure contested Himalayan triad-border’s place on the proverbial global hotspot map. It may prove nothing less than a nuclear tinderbox at 14,000 feet…
Danny Sjursen is a retired US Army officer and contributing editor at Antiwar.com His work has appeared in the NY Times, LA Times, The Nation, Huff Post, The Hill, Salon, Mother Jones, and Tom Dispatch, among other publications. He served combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan and later taught history at West Point. He is the author of a memoir and critical analysis of the Iraq War, Ghostriders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge. His forthcoming book, Patriotic Dissent: America in the Age of Endless War (Heyday Books) is available for pre-order. Follow him on Twitter @SkepticalVet and see his website for speaking/media requests and past publications.
Copyright 2020 Danny Sjursen